Jeff Thayer and the San Diego Symphony Reveal the Brilliance of Britten’s Violin Concerto

Among the welcome changes Rafael Payare has brought to the San Diego Symphony is a revitalization of the orchestra’s repertory. Major works the orchestra had not previously performed—and not just new compositions—are now center stage. In January, 2019, when Payare was still Music Director Designate, he conducted the orchestra and cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Benjamin Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68, and this weekend—now that Payare is the orchestra’s Music Director—guest conductor Bramwell Tovey brought Britten’s earlier Violin Concerto, Op. 15, to Copley Symphony Hall with Concertmaster Jeff Thayer as soloist.

Jeff Thayer (courtesy of S.D. Symphony)

Jeff Thayer [photo courtesy of the San Diego Symphony]

These are impressive, probing orchestral offerings that the orchestra performed with persuasive skill and evident gratification. And to this regular follower of the San Diego Symphony, they are certainly a welcome respite from Maestro Jahja Ling’s Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Respighi arch-Romantic go-to list.

Jeff Thayer made a bravura case for Britten’s Violin Concerto, a complex, yet intriguing modernist concerto that rewards the attentive listener, unlike the easy-listening Romanticism of Samuel Barber’s frequently programmed Violin Concerto. Both were premiered in 1940, and each might be considered an American concerto because, although Britten may be English to the core, he composed his Violin Concerto on an extended North American stay.

Although Britten gives the soloist few opulent themes to savor, Thayer lavished his most appealing timbre and elegant phrasing on the opening movement’s main theme, an extended, winning serpentine motif, and on the shimmering solo that ends the “Passacaglia.” Thayer’s unfailing finesse subdued every challenge Britten tosses at the soloist—assertive pizzicato themes, double harmonics, extensive forays in parallel sixths and tenths, and searing motifs in the violin’s highest range. Coupled with Tovey’s sympathetic reading of the score and the orchestra’s bright, cogent response to his direction, Thayer’s account of the Britten Concerto earned the roaring approval of Saturday’s Copley Symphony Hall audience.

Tovey brought Edward Elgar’s familiar Enigma Variations, Op. 36, into sharp focus, maintaining the pristine clarity of the composer’s transparent orchestration and the sheen of his picturesque melodic vocabulary. Among the many stellar solos throughout this finely wrought variation cycle, allow me to praise the charm and tonal depth of the cello section playing the main theme of the “Romanza” and Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk for her glowing, mysterious melodic forays in the Finale.

Tovey opened his concert of music by British composers with a bracing interpretation of William Walton’s popular “Crown Imperial,” a march composed for the 1937 coronation of Britain’s King George VI. Finding good humor and a sense of optimism in Walton’s score, Tovey rescued the march from the aura of pompous formality that typically surrounds such royal occasions.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony March 7 & 8, 2020, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The performance of March 7 was attended for this review.

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